Egyptomania: From Giza to New York…

Artwork by Marianne Barcellona

Emily O'Dell & Marianne Barcellona in the Valley of the Kings

For years, I’ve been interested in the interplay between Egyptology and the creative arts. To explore this topic in more depth, I taught a seminar at Harvard on Egyptomania around the world–as expressed through art, theatre, architecture, literature, and film. From opera to the Bangles–and everything in between (yes, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson too)–my students and I investigated the ways in which artists–from Egypt’s 26th Dynasty to the present day–have consistently looked to ancient Egyptian motifs and history for creative inspiration–for thousands of years.

Which brings me to my friend–Marianne. I first met Marianne Barcellona when we were working together on a Brown University-Cairo University archaeological excavation at the Great Pyramids of Giza (the gig of a lifetime!). While I was busy as Chief Epigrapher tracing hieroglyphs in the tombs, Marianne was carefully photographing every inch of our site–and all of our finds–as our excavation photographer. It didn’t take me long to discover that in addition to being a professional photographer, Marianne also happens to be an extremely gifted painter.

One day, while we were working in the Egyptian Museum, several ancient Egyptian wooden figurines in a glass case (which I’d never noticed before) caught her eye. Something about them–was it their eyes, spirit, or shape–she couldn’t seem to shake. Ever since then, she’s been painting exquisite oil portraits of these humble figurines in her studio in New York. Last year, she even let me bring my Egyptology students to her studio–to discuss her creative process and the inspired intersections between antiquities and modern art.

As you might imagine, I’m absolutely in love with Marianne’s Egyptology paintings–which you can view directly here or on her website. While she’s already sold many of her Egyptology paintings, a number of them are still available–including the ones featured in this post. I’d buy them all if I could!

What my students and I eventually discovered in our Egyptomania seminar–is that it’s almost impossible to represent, reproduce or recycle ancient Egypt without the result appearing garish and campy–due, in part, to the bright colors frequently employed (which is why the splendid Polish film Faraon/Pharaoh is an exception to this rule–because of its use of yellow filters to wash out the colors). Inspired by antique figurines crafted from Lebanese cedar, Marianne has transcended the traps of Egyptomania to create unique images which are arresting, haunting, and human. Viewing her paintings, I feel like I’m staring directly into the ka of each ancient face.

He is Happy this good prince:
Death is a kindly fate.
One generation passes–another remains,
as it’s been since the time of the ancestors.
The gods who were here before rest in their tombs,
Blessed nobles too are buried in their tombs.
But those who built these tombs,
Their places are gone–
What has become of them?
I have heard the wise words of Imhotep and Hordjedef,
Whose sayings are recited in whole.
But what of their tombs?
Their walls have crumbled,
Their places are gone,
As though they had never been!
None comes from the hereafter
To tell of their needs,
To calm our hearts,
Until we must go where they have gone!
Hence, rejoice in your hearts!
Forgetfulness profits you.
Follow your heart as long as you live!
Put myrrh on your head,
Dress in fine linen,
Anoint yourself with oils fit for a god,
Heap up your joys,
Let your heart not sink!
Follow your heart and your happiness–
Do your things on earth as your heart commands!
When there comes to you that day of mourning,
the Weary-hearted (Osiris) will not hear their mourning,
For wailing saves no man from the beyond!
Celebrate today, don’t get weary of it on me!
Look, no one is allowed to take his goods with him,
Listen, no one who departs comes back again.

— Harper’s Song (from the Tomb of Intef)

A Baby Crocodile Mummy!

To inquire about purchasing any of the paintings above–or to see more paintings like them–please visit Marianne Barcellona’s website. Please note that this week she may be slow in responding to emails, because she’s teaching a Visiting Artist Master Class on Drawing to Harvard Freshmen for Freshmen Week–but she’ll respond when she’s back in the city. And make sure you don’t leave this post without first finding the jackal-headed god Anubis in the painting on top!

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